This week’s revelation that our on-its-way-out-turn-on-the-taps Tory government renewed a controversial contract with Scotia Surgery in early June — just six days before voters shoved it onto the political trash heap — was … well, interesting. But not surprising.
Perhaps more telling was Health Minister Maureen MacDonald’s response.
“They’re entitled to sign contracts right up to the day they’re no longer the government,” she blandly told reporters this week, adding with Zen-like detachment: “Things that have already happened, I have to learn to accept and move on, and focus on what it is I need to do.”
You could almost smell the relief in her words. In March 2008, then-Conservative health minister Chris d’Entremont announced a one-year, $1-million “demonstration” project to reduce then-18- to 24-month wait times for orthopedic surgery. Under the arrangement, privately-owned Scotia Surgery was to perform more than 500 minor procedures at its Dartmouth clinic in order to free up time and space in Capital Health operating rooms for more complex cases.
Then-opposition leader Darrell Dexter harrumphed: “This is being billed as innovative reform, but in fact there’s nothing new and nothing innovative about this whatsoever.”
He called it “a million-dollar quick fix … taking money out of the public system and putting it into a private facility,” and added: “This is really about the larger question of public policy, and is it the direction that we want health care in this province to go in?”
Pre-premier Dexter was right. But the problem for now-Premier Dexter is — at least as a quick fix — this one appears to be working. For starters, Scotia Surgery, unlike many private clinics, operates in concert with the public system. No one gets to jump the queue simply because they can afford to pay. And the clinic’s patients, concedes MacDonald, are satisfied with the service.
Given those realities, it would have been tricky for the new NDP government to have simply cancelled the contract after it took office in June.
The Tories took them off that hook. But Dexter’s larger question remains: Will this quick fix work for the long term?
What are the pluses — and minuses — of using private clinics to deliver public services? And is this really the direction in which we want the public health-care system to go?
Before Scotia Surgery’s oh-so-convenient contract extension comes up for renewal seven months from now, our new government will need to answer those questions.
Stephen Kimber, the Rogers Communications Chair in Journalism at the University of Kings College, is the author of eight books.